THIRTEEN WAYS OF LOOKING AT A HANGING by Alfi’an Sa’at. OVERVIEW.
THIRTEEN WAYS OF LOOKING AT A HANGING by Alfi’an Sa’at
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THIRTEEN WAYS OF LOOKING AT A HANGING by Alfi’anSa’at
This is a harrowing tale, excruciating in its unfolding of the final days in prison of Ricky, a young man condemned to die for drug trafficking. There are thirteen sections, corresponding to the thirteen photographs to be taken of him before his hanging. His refusal to be compliant and to pose, smiling for these photographs, is in some way symbolic of his resistance to what he views as unnecessary and meaningless, this elaborate preparation for a final ritual which will take away his life. However, the clinical and methodical way in which all preparations are made illustrates the inexorable objectivity of the entire judicial system.
Ricky is seen to move through a numbed subjection to the routine of prison life, questioning the irony of performing actions that in the end will be futile to a man whose life will end soon. His few contacts with other human beings, and with members of his family finally push him to a dreadful realization of the importance of life, and for the first time, he breaks down in an emotional catharsis.
In part a cautionary tale, the story is a probing psychological analysis of a man whose life is coming to an end but who has never fully realized the wrong he has done, or its consequences upon himself and his family, until perhaps, right at the end.
PLOT AND STRUCTURE
The presentation of events is centred round the number thirteen, traditionally an unlucky number, the number of snapshots that are to be taken and the number of chapters or episodes that mark the final days of the condemned prisoner.
The first chapter sees Ricky merely welcoming the change of scenery from the tiny cell to another place. Chapter 2 clinically details the mathematical dimensions and physics for an efficient hanging. Chapter 3 shows Ricky eager to make contact with the other prisoner exercising in the “yard”. Chapter 4 goes back to Ricky’s past and how he became an addict and then a dealer, and got caught. Chapter 5 describes his trying on the attire that he would wear for the photographs while chapter 6 describes the visit of his mother and brother. Chapter 7 is a terse interlude of the clerk looking at Ricky’s photo and feeling that it is a waste of a life. Chapter 8 returns to the attire to be worn, this time there is a jacket. Chapter 9 sees Ricky back in the exercise area while Chapter 10 sees him refusing to smile for the photograph. Chapter 11 returns to the visitors, this time his brother’s pregnant girlfriend, and a turnaround of sorts is achieved when Ricky tells his brother that he will be a good father. Chapter 12 has Ricky still reluctant to smile for the photo. Finally, in Chapter 13, Ricky decides to give in and to smile, to complete the picture of capitulation, This is the son that every mother would have wanted: the smart clothes, his own office, the proud smile (p. 85).
SETTING AND ATMOSPHERE
The setting is grim, inside a prison and within the metaphorical prison of Ricky’s mind. We are made aware, right from the beginning, of the limitations of Ricky’s existence, the cell measuring three square metres, so confined that he welcomes a change of scenery with the taking of the photographs, even if it means just being in some other part of the prison. He also welcomes the idea of a television which can help drown out his own thoughts.
The third episode where he is in the exercise yard further reinforces the tight enclosure of his existence and his need to communicate with another person. Ricky notices the irony of calling the room he is in an exercise yard. It was completely enclosed and windowless (p. 71). The urgency of his need to talk to one other person, is, however, frustrated, and Ricky felt the words he wanted to say turn into something solid, lodged like a clot in his heart. That image is particularly powerful in its association with heaviness and with sudden death.
Ricky’s impending death weighs heavily upon him, and the associations of death that are conjured with the tie that he must knot are only lightened with the conversations with his mother and brother, and finally in the image of life that is represented by the pregnancy of his brother’s girlfriend.
We are really told very little about the condemned man as a person, and what he is like. This omission is quite deliberate as the character himself seems quite unformed. This may account for his descent into crime, where, he as a person without firm values merely drifts from one occupation to another and gets led into illegitimate activity. The terse manner in which Section 4 is written, in phrases and single words, conveys the lack of thought behind Ricky’s actions. Had smoked pot while overseas. Went back, and on a whim, started asking around. Finally managed to score pot (p. 71). Such actions, based on whim, fancy, chance and opportunity eventually led to the inevitable conclusion, Sentenced to death (p. 72), uttered without emotion.
Ricky’s thoughts while in prison also reflect no remorse over what he has done, the moral implications quite overlooked as he merely deals with the practicalities of his existence while awaiting death. Yet, we are led eventually to emotions which he has held back, when finally the last photograph is taken and he gives in to tears and to a smile forced out of him to defy as it were, the hanging which will take away his life.
CHARACTERS- Ricky’s FAMILY
His family seems quite ordinary, the father a businessman who could afford to send his son abroad when he couldn’t become a pilot. He apparently remains one of those distant fathers who can’t provide much spiritual or moral guidance to his children. His mother, while loving, seems an ordinary housewife who expresses her affection in cooking for him, seems to have left her sons pretty much on their own, as evidenced by the younger son getting his girlfriend pregnant while he was in National Service and financially not really in a position to marry her.
Mortality and the value of life
The narrative revolves around the idea that Ricky is a condemned man, that he has only a limited time to live, and how he feels within this time. The irony, of exercising and keeping his body fit when this body would soon be no more, hits him, and while this adds to the morbidity of the tale, it also reminds us of the limitations of our own life. We who are not condemned to die with such certainty and within a known and definite time would also meet our end eventually.
While it is never clearly articulated in Ricky’s stream of consciousness, it becomes increasingly clear to him how he has never valued his life. The random nature in which he drifted into one option and then another, from his desire to be a pilot, then studying in Australia because he didn’t qualify, illustrates the general lack of direction. With no burning passion, nor the desire to achieve his goal by dedication and hard work, even his turning to drugs seems thoughtless and incidental. It only becomes clear to him as he is measured for the clothes he will be hanged in, asked to smile for the photographs he will leave behind, and when he sees the burgeoning life in his brother’s girlfriend, that he realises what he has given up.
The importance of family
The urgency of the need to communicate with others and to share love, care and concern also arises, not only in the visits of his mother and brother, but in the brief moment when Ricky wants to speak with the other guy exercising in the yard. There is a repression of feeling throughout, not only during Ricky’s term of imprisonment but in the years before that. Especially poignant is the mention of Ricky’s feelings when he listens to his mother talking to him. Ricky would listen, his hand on the telephone, smiling or frowning on cue, but most of the time he would be tuning in to the texture of his mother’s voice, not its contents: its inflections, the sigh at the end of the sentences, the fragile laughter. He could never tell her this, but it is the voice that he wants to imagine, if it is at all within his control, at the hour of his death (p. 77).
It is likely that Ricky had not felt that way towards his mother before when he was living his life of self-indulgence, or at least not analysed it in that manner. Even at these last moments, he cannot bring himself to articulate his love.
We were told earlier that the family was not used to physical expressions of affection and that the only time Ricky remembered hugging his parents was when he said goodbye to them at the airport just before he left for Australia for his university studies. In spite of the awkwardness, there was affection, and Ricky felt a moment of tenderness when he hugged his father. This humanizes Ricky and makes him an ordinary man, not some kind of remote monster base enough to deal in drugs. At the same time, one wonders if it is this lack of real communication within the family which lies at the heart of his going wrong.
The inexorable process of law
What the narrative accomplishes remarkably well is the manner in which justice and the law is carried out. It is impersonal, impartial and efficient. It is certainly rigid, but as humane as it is possible to be. Basic amenities are provided to the condemned prisoner in his cell, there is provision for exercise and visiting rights, the photographer is professional and the guard even jokingly addresses him as “handsome”.
The most telling episode is probably chapter 7 when the clerk looks at Ricky’s identity card and prepares herself for her next task, informing the family to collect the body of the deceased within twenty-four hours. The narration is clinical until the end of the account when she looks at the photograph, remarks on his good looks and youth, and feels that it is such a waste. The specific details of name, race, address and birth type make the account and the process detached and impersonal, just like the procedure of how she will punch a hole in the card and then slip it with a letter into an envelope. The mechanical details of time and day of arrival make the whole process one of practised routine, there can be few variations to such a procedure.
However, the description of Ricky’s features and his expression, Not ready yet (p. 78), introduces another element into the narrative. No matter how often the law and punishment has been carried out, this is still a different human being, and one who hasn’t prepared himself for this. Thus, the reader is left with a very strange mix of feelings, justice has been administered, but there is still pity for the criminal.
Ricky’s thoughts are conveyed to us most of the time, his questioning of the absurdities in his daily routine as he awaits execution, his resistance to being attired for the photograph sessions and to smile in them. Gradually, we sense his desperation, his self-pity, his reluctance to face death and finally his breaking down in fear and bewilderment. We do get the viewpoint of others affected by his imprisonment and sentence, his family’s restrained though emotional reactions, and the more detached attitude of the staff who deal with him.
The author’s viewpoint also emerges as a mix of investigative curiosity and pity, but overall the vision is balanced and realistic.
STYLE - ImageryThe photographs
The whole business of the photographs is an artistic device to present a kaleidoscope of feelings towards the hanging, that of Ricky, his family, the officials involved. The photographs are a way of attempting to capture his identity, who he is, and what he represents.
In chapter 10, he refuses to smile as he assumes indifference and a lack of compliance to his fate. In chapter 12, he is still stubborn, deciding that smiling and wearing the smart office clothes provided would be testimonies of regret (p. 85), that it would show what he could have been, a son to be proud of, the smart clothes, his own office, the proud smile. However, we find in chapter 13 that he has capitulated, given in. He admits to feeling regret, sorrow and fear.
When the clerk looks at his identity card photo, she feels the tragedy, the waste because he was young and good-looking and could have been destined for a better life.
The clothes he is asked to put on seems to Ricky a mockery, that he is a well-dressed individual with his own office, and he refuses to take part in this charade and final humiliation, the only assertion of his will at a time when he is left with nothing else.
The clothes he puts on also reminds him that he is fitting into a role that others had played before him, that of the doomed figure about to be hanged, and therefore without a unique identity. He also feels that he has soiled the clothes a moment after he put them on, an indirect indication of his own guilty status, the stain of criminality.
The tie he is asked to wear is of course significant of his hanging. There are also the repeated references to Ricky’s neck, a broad, sturdy neck (p. 77), the clerk noted from his identity card photo.
Narrative style and tone
The narrative alternates between the thoughts and feelings in Ricky’s mind, and a clinical account of technicalities and procedures.
Chapter 2 is especially factual and informative on the weight and measurements involved for a successful hanging. It culminates in a repulsive picture of what would happen if death is not instantaneous. This serves to remind us of the horrifying nature of this punishment, the reality of which Ricky has been eluding with his blank and stony exterior. It is also a reinforcement of the nature of justice and the law. It aims to be impersonal and its procedures are planned efficiently and meticulously. The officers involved are merely the executors of laws set up by the state. They do their job, and do not engage with the prisoners on a personal level. This is seen when the photographer is surprised at Ricky’s attempts to converse with him, asking him about his camera.
However, it is quite clear that it is difficult to separate the crime from the criminal, to cut off feelings and to be above it all. Ricky finds himself unable to maintain a blank countenance for the photo-taking, he could hardly keep back his regret and sorrow when his mother and brother visited and he feels joy for the new life his brother’s girlfriend is carrying.